First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Back in my days as an evangelical, I used to look down on Christians that used written prayers in private prayer or in public worship. I viewed the use of written prayers – even the Lord’s Prayer – as a mindless repetition that indicated that those praying them couldn’t pray real prayers “from their heart”.
Fast forward to today. Most days, I pray the Lord’s Prayer at least three times – once at Morning Prayer, again at Mass, and later at Evening Prayer. After getting into this rhythm slowly over a number of years, I’d argue strongly that the use of prayers that have stood the test of time – perhaps especially the Lord’s Prayer – allows the words and their meaning to sink into my bones, providing a foundation for my prayer life that used to be like the chaff that the wind blows away.
That said, it’s always good to take a fresh look at the ancient prayers we use over and over again. A simple 85-page book by New Testament theologian N.T. Wright called “The Lord and His Prayer” helped me to dive deeper into the Lord’s Prayer, and in particular, revolutionized my understanding of the phrase “thy kingdom come.” What is this kingdom we’re praying for?
It's certainly not something purely heavenly, or outside of our physical world, for we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In his book, Bishop Wright says that heaven and earth are
“the two interlocking arenas of God’s good world. Heaven is God’s space, where God’s [word] runs and God’s future purposes are waiting in the wings. Earth is our world, our space. Think of the vision at the end of the book of Revelation. It isn’t about humans being snatched up from earth to heaven. The holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last. That is what we pray for when we pray ‘thy kingdom come.’”
The Hebrew people – God’s chosen people – end their 40-years’ long journey through the wilderness when they arrived at the land God had promised them. The geographical area called Palestine was the physical, tangible land God had designated for his people. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus rewrites this story and casts a new destiny for not only God’s people, but for all of humanity. In Mark’s brief telling of this story, Jesus is baptized and God’s spirit descends on him and says, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is then tempted in the wilderness for forty days, and he proclaims that the kingdom of God “has come near.”
Those who originally heard this story were Jews and knew all about their ancestors’ time in the wilderness. They were waiting to be liberated from their Roman oppressors, and they were specifically waiting on God to send a King – a Messiah. You and I have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. We know what will happen on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But Mark is making a point in the way he tells the story to illustrate that in Jesus, things are different now.
In proclaiming that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, Jesus is beginning to rewrite the story of Israel by implying here that he himself is the long-awaited King, and later in Mark, he claims this much more forcefully and clearly.
But this proclamation that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near doesn’t happen until after Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. We, too, began our forty-day pilgrimage towards Easter on Ash Wednesday during which we will be tempted in extraordinary ways. During Lent, we are called to spiritually listen and watch for these temptations, and to resist. We are called to engage in spiritual battle against the forces that separate us from the kingdom of God. We’re also called to bring the values of the kingdom of God to this world. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In our Lenten journey, we will encounter temptations, and we’re also called to action, both in giving alms to the poor, and in fighting spiritual battles related to deeper, societal injustices such as systemic racism and extreme economic disparity. We are called to action that implements God’s heavenly principles here on earth.
While we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and offer ourselves to be instruments of its coming on earth as it is in heaven, in a sense, the kingdom of God is already here. The coming of God’s kingdom was foretold at the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God – the long-awaited Messiah who would set the Hebrew people free. When the Holy Child was born at Christmas, God’s kingdom broke into our reality when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This miraculous inbreaking of the kingdom of God continues to this day through the Sacraments of the Church, especially in each celebration of the Holy Eucharist when we obey the Lord’s command to continue a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice.
Back in my days as an evangelical, just as I held that rote prayers were without faith and devotion, so too, I believed that regular celebrations of the Eucharist somehow made it less special – less appreciated – less meaningful. Fast forward to today when I find myself as rector of a parish that has a long tradition of celebrating the Eucharist every single day. Just as taking a fresh look at the words of the Lord’s Prayer has been helpful to me, so too is dusting off old, forgotten ways of celebrating the Eucharist. One of traditions is somewhat erroneously called the “silent canon.” For most of the history of the Church, the Eucharistic Prayer has been prayed by the priest in a quiet voice that is inaudible to everyone else present. At the time of the Reformation, most Protestants, including our forebears in England, forbade this practice and required each word spoken by the priest to be sung or spoken in a loud voice, ostensibly so that the faithful could more fully participate in the liturgy. During Lent, we are observing this practice at St. Mary’s on Saturday and Sunday. The words spoken by the priest are printed in the leaflet in case you wish to follow along, but I encourage to participate by meditating on the mystery of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom here on earth as Michael/the schola sings, and during the silence. For in the consecration of the bread and the wine, “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, comes down from heaven to earth. God’s space and ours are finally married, integrated at last.” At the moment of the consecration of the elements, the miracle that God worked in the Incarnation at Christmas is brought to us in this place and time, or better said, we, along with the bread and wine, are raised to heaven.
Friends, the kingdom of God is already here, and yet we spend time in the wilderness with Jesus preparing for His death and resurrection. We will be tempted to wander around aimlessly like the Israelites did in their sojourn in the wilderness. We will be tempted to forget what God has promised us. But unlike the first listeners of Mark’s story, you and I know how things are going to unfold. We know how Jesus recast the destiny of the people of God, and of all humanity. We know about Good Friday and Easter. During this “bright sadness of Lent,” we have the gift of a mini-Easter when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together. When we pray “thy kingdom come” in a moment, let us recognize the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in the bread and the wine, and as we receive it, be given the grace and strength we need to overcome all assaults of the enemy, and live out our Christian lives bringing heaven to earth every single day. Amen.
 Psalm 1:4.
 N. T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 13.
 Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!